The basis for a great incentive travel program is this: Give your qualifiers a fantastic experience to brag about when they get back — and make sure it's an experience that they could never buy off the shelf. That might sound like a tall order, but one way some companies are guaranteeing an inimitable event is by taking over an entire resort and making themselves at home. Anyone can buy a beautiful guest room in a posh property, but few people have arrived on-site to find their company logo stuck on the front door and stitched on staffers' shirts, knowing that every guest is a colleague.

Cathy Blackburn, president and owner of Events+ Inc., Irvine, Calif., orchestrated Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation's weeklong takeover of Universal's Portofino Hotel in Orlando last July and is doing it again this year. “It's wonderful to have the whole hotel. Everyone is under one roof, so you know that when you pass someone in the hall, they are either part of, or serving, Rockwell,” she says.

For the Rockwell group, Blackburn has customized room-key cards, delivered the morning newspaper with a corporate logo bellyband, and broadcast corporate messages over the phone message system, but many corporate takeovers go much further than that. When George P. Johnson Co. coordinated an incentive for 800 Lexus dealers at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on Maui, it installed the Lexus logo in the middle of the pool and turned the softball field into a private car salon. Across the island at the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa, another company hired a photographer to roam the property taking photos. The pictures were then broadcast on monitors placed all over the resort.

When Milwaukee-based Catalyst International took over the Loews Coronado Bay Hotel in October, golf carts displayed Catalyst information on LCD displays; at the Grand Geneva resort in Lake Geneva, Wis., a Rubbermaid incentive took over the property's golf course, and each division of the company themed one of the 18 golf holes. When golfers teed up on one hole, they swung to the sounds of a New Orleans jazz band; on another, they ordered up elaborate tropical drinks.

Suggest those ideas to hotel management when you're sharing the resort with other groups, and “no” is all you're likely to hear. But standards are different with only one client in-house.

“Groups can take over the entire lobby or mezzanine when you don't have to worry about other guests in the hotel. You can have skydivers land on the front lawn and can get pretty creative with the decor of the hotel. And, from the chef's point of view, he only has to make one sauce, not 20,” says Jack Gage, director of incentive, insurance, and international sales for the 1,300-room Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We love big incentive groups. Companies that take over our hotel generally are hosting high-end, well-traveled people, and they want to do unusual things that really stretch our staff.”

We've had CEOs parachute and helicopter right onto the property, which we'd never allow if there were other guests at the hotel.”
— Bill Wallace, Desert Springs (Calif.) Marriott Resort & Spa

Bill Wallace, market director of sales for Desert Springs (Calif.) Marriott Resort & Spa, agrees that the rules change with a corporate takeover. “We've had CEOs parachute and helicopter right onto the property, which we'd never allow if there were other guests at the hotel.”

Challenges to Consider

Nothing may be quite as impressive as taking over an entire resort, but there are a number of planning and budgetary issues to consider. First, companies need to plan at least a year in advance, perhaps two, since they need a block of time with no other business on the books. Expect to be asked to be very flexible with dates. A resort will be most amenable to a takeover during its low and shoulder seasons.

Planners may be asked to hold most or all meal functions in the hotel to guarantee the revenue that would have been flowing in from leisure travelers or other groups — and you can expect to have to pay for rooms that are not used if you want true exclusivity.

And since the displaced leisure travelers would have been paying the higher individual guest rate, it may be difficult to negotiate a room rate that's as low as you might normally expect.

Feel Free

If you can get around the roadblocks and lock in a takeover that works in your schedule and your budget, take a deep breath and enjoy. Planners say that one of the greatest benefits of a takeover is simply the freedom you feel when you know the place is all yours.

When San Francisco — based Bank of the West took over the 240-room Marriott in San Ramon, Calif., for its annual kickoff meeting, the entire hotel became its stage. “Each of our six regional banks did skits in the hotel for the sales rally, and with no one else in the hotel, we could rehearse in any meeting room,” says the company's vice president for marketing, Joyce Faulkner. Given all the privacy, “our people could really relax. There's a small bar in the hotel, and they were spilling out into the lobby. We weren't bothering anyone.”

Indeed, when Dick Gaeta of Premier Incentives of Marlboro, Mass., locked in the 208-room Hotel Europe Killarney in Ireland a year and a half in advance for top producers of Boston-based CGU Insurance, privacy was a key attraction. “Guests don't have to worry about going into areas they shouldn't; they feel like the resort is their home,” he says.

When guests checked in, they were treated to a reception in a chandelier-lighted tent in front of the hotel on Killarney Lake. A fireworks display over the water showed the company logo in a burst of color and light. After the reception, attendees boarded boats, which had been docked in front of the hotel, for an evening cruise around the lake. “It would have been difficult to put the company's tent on property and have the docks filled with our boats if there were other guests in the hotel,” Gaeta points out.

“We put staff in corporate logo outfits. We had custom signage in elevators and public areas. We never felt like we were stepping on any other toes.” And stresses Gaeta: “They had bragging rights that they ‘owned’ the hotel.”

Now, that's an incentive.

Imagine the Possibilities

If you take over the place, you can …

  • Put down a carpet with the company logo in the lobby
  • Turn the front desk into a giant lobby bar
  • Theme the golf course
  • Raise your company flag outside the hotel
  • Dress the staff in your company shirts
  • Use the fitness center for a health-themed meeting break
  • Drive your buses up to the front door
  • Rename the meeting rooms
  • Hang corporate banners in the elevators

Takeover Targets

Some properties are more amenable to takeovers than others. Here is a list of major chain properties that groups can buy out in their entirety. Of course, if you don't see the one you want, it never hurts to ask. National sales office numbers are included, and guest room counts are in parentheses:

Hilton Hotels Corp. (800) 321-3232

Hilton Lake Lanier Islands Resort, Georgia (216); Pointe Hilton Resorts, Phoenix (563-suite Squaw Peak, 585-suite Tapatio Cliffs Resort); Hilton Waikoloa Village, Big Island, Hawaii (1,240); Hilton Lake Placid Resort, New York (179)

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts (800) 543-1818

Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa (815); Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress (750); Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach (506); Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort (493); Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas (496)

Loews Hotels (212) 521-2000

Loews Coronado Bay Resort, San Diego (440); Loews Le Concorde, Québec City (424); Loews Miami Beach Hotel (800); Loews Philadelphia Hotel (585); Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, Tucson (398); Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Orlando (750); Hard Rock Hotel, Orlando (650)

Marriott Hotels, Resorts and Suites (800) 626-3614

Marriott Orlando World Center Resort & Convention Center (1,503); Lodge at Sonoma — A Renaissance Resort & Spa (180)

Sonesta Hotels & Resorts (800) 477-4556

Sonesta Beach Resort Key Biscayne (290); Sonesta Beach Resort Bermuda (400); Sonesta Beach Resort & Villas Anguilla (100); Aruba Sonesta Beach Resort (556)

Starwood (800) 325-3535

Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Casino, Puerto Rico (694); Westin La Cantera Resort, San Antonio (508)

Wyndham International Hotels & Resorts (800) 996-4016

The Boulders Resort, Carefree, Ariz. (160 plus 50 villas); Wyndham El Conquistador, Las Croabas, Puerto Rico (918, plus 90 casitas); Carmel Valley Ranch, Carmel, Calif. (144)

Take the Hero Role

Stamford, Conn. — based Gartner Inc., the world's leading research and advisory firm, has been holding its 10,000-attendee Internet Technology Strategy & Management Conference in Orlando for the past 10 years. Taking over the theme parks — from the Magic Kingdom to MGM Studios — is one aspect of the event that's easy for Gartner's planner: “There's enough entertainment you don't have to create anything,” says Cathy Foreman, vice president, symposia programs for Gartner.

One evening, when Gartner attendees packed the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at MGM Studios, instead of the Indiana Jones stuntman coming out at the end, Gartner's CEO stepped into the Indiana role, dressed from head to toe in khaki.